How this kid fell in love with tomatoes
Growing up I felt the same way about raw tomatoes as every other kid—yuck! I slid them out the back of my Burger King Whoppers, and ripped them off my Sunday morning sesame bagels. I only enjoyed tomatoes in their processed form, as ketchup on French fries and marinara sauce on pizza and pasta.
But one summer everything changed. I was about 11 years old, and the woman my father was hot and heavy with (she’s now my stepmother) had just moved in to our testosterone rich prepubescent den of iniquity for wayward boys who pillow fought and played dungeons and dragons all day. We survived on a diet of bagel dogs and Pizza Hut and my divorcee dad was grateful if we remembered to shower. So in addition to bringing actual furniture, knicks knacks she’d collected from her travels around the world—the kind that make a home feel lived-in—and her touch of femininity (aka a laundry basket and hand towels in the bathrooms), she brought her green-thumb.
It’s with her insatiable love for gardening that she set out to overhaul the backyard, a patchwork of dead grass, flowering weeds, and a few succulents from the planet Adarak Prime. Behind a chain-link fence and a few plum trees in cinder block planters was a blank canvas; on which she hoped to paint a vegetable garden.
That first summer she moved in, she took me to the nursery to pick up some gardening soil, seedlings, and packets of vegetable seeds. Naturally I went along for the ride, asked a few questions here and there, and had no problem getting my hands dirty.
Anxious for the chance to yank my first carrot from the earth, and sample our first sugar snap pea off the vine, I waited for what felt like an eternity for our veggies to grow. Every day I asked if they needed more water, and every day she reminded me of the dangers of drowning the roots and I just needed to be patient, because the magic needed more time to happen.
And then one day, everything changed. A cherry tomato on one of the seedlings we planted was growing where a yellow flower had fallen. Green, small and hard at first, over the next few days I watched it plump and transition in color from light yellow to bright orange, until, finally, it was a blood-red beauty ready for tasting.
I remember the warm pop of sweetness. Juice bursting in my mouth like the jelly-filled Gushers candies my mother used to put in my lunch—it was mind-blowing. The best tomato I’d ever tasted. It wasn’t mealy, or sour like all the tomato wedges they stuck in my iceberg lettuce side salads drenched in ranch dressing. It was yummy, and filled with all the patience and hard work we’d put into it.
And from that day forward, I knew the potential of a ripe tomato. Having experienced firsthand what it’s like to get involved in growing our own food, I think this is something all parents should consider doing with their kids. Whether it’s in the front or back yard, or in a pot on the windowsill. All kids should have a chance to work the earth, because once they do, they’ll have a greater appreciation for where our food comes from and a stronger connection to our environment, which is in desperate need of some TLC.
Buying Heirloom Tomatoes for Marinara Sauce
My love for “good” raw tomatoes only strengthened when I had my first bite of a perfect heirloom tomato in San Francisco.
I remember it like it was ten years ago—because it was. I had just moved from Los Angeles and was living in a crazy lesbian’s living room in Noe Valley. I spent two hours peacocking at the Castro gym, and was ready to do my weekend whore-lap down Noe’s 24th Street corridor. After smiling and waving at a few babies in strollers, and an impromptu cheese tasting at the Noe Valley Cheese shop, I went to the farmer’s market for some fresh veggies and fruit.
One vendor had samples of a green zebra heirloom tomato on a rustic wooden cutting board at the edge of his cornucopia of collards and chard. He wasn’t topping them with olive oil, or sprinkling them with salt, just serving them up raw and unadulterated. The piece I had was juicy, sweet and a glistened bright green and yellow in the midday sun. I took one bite and was immediately taken back to that summer my stepmother and I plucked and popped cherry tomatoes off the vine. And I was hooked.
Marinara Sauce Recipe with Heirloom Tomatoes
Unfortunately the rest of the world also thinks heirloom tomatoes are the bomb diggity, and they’re oftentimes $4/lbs, or more, at the farmers market or grocery store, which makes heirloom tomatoes an expensive ingredient for your basic homemade marinara sauce.
But I’ve found a solution! I learned that if you ask the farmers selling heirloom tomatoes at your local farmers market if they have any they can’t sell (because they’re dinged up pretty bad and bruised or have some random dark spots, etc), they usually have a bunch piled up in back they’ll gladly unload at a fraction of the cost.
So every summer when heirlooms are in season, I grab a bunch of the “discarded ones” for around $1/lbs and I use them to make this delicious roasted heirloom tomato marinara sauce.
- 4-5 lbs of heirloom tomatoes
- ⅓ cup of good extra virgin olive oil
- 5 cloves of garlic
- 3 tblsp fresh chopped sweet Mediterranean basil
- 1 tblsp of salt
- ½ tsp black pepper
Preheat the oven to 410° and set a rack in the middle.
Rinse off the tomatoes under cool water and with a pairing knife, remove the tops, and any discolored parts or rough skin, etc. Don’t worry about bruises because you’re going to roast the hell out of these tomatoes, and then pulverize them in a blender.
Line a large rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper, because it makes for easy cleanup with all the caramelized tomato juice and oil that will pool in the pan after roasting. It’s also nice to avoid any flavor transfers from the metal sheet and whatever you cooked on it previously.
Drizzle the heirloom tomatoes with about half the ⅓ cup of olive oil (don’t worry if it’s not exact), and sprinkle them with a ½ tblsp of salt. Don’t add the black pepper just yet, because we don’t want it to burn and get bitter in the oven. We’ll add it later.
Roast the heirloom tomatoes in the oven for 60 mins. They should wrinkle, release their juices, get really soft, and darken slightly around the edges.
Turn the broiler on high, and broil the heirloom tomatoes for another 5-7 mins to get a little more of the skins browned and charred. This is how we develop a subtle smoky “fire roasted” flavor in this marinara sauce you’d typically find when cooking over a wood fire.
Take the roasted tomatoes out of the oven, and let them cool in the pan for about 10 mins.
Pull a stack of sweet Mediterranean basil leaves from a bunch, and stack them on top of one another leaving the largest leaf on the bottom and the smallest on the top of your stack.
Roll the basil up into the largest leaf on the bottom until it looks like a cigar. Then chop the basil cross-wise into thin strips. This technique is called “chiffonade,” which is French for “making rags.” The reason we’re chopping the basil first is that not all blenders will pulverize leafy herbs well, and it’s good to give it a head start.
In a blender (I use a Vitamix, but any blender, or even an immersion blender in a large sauce pot, will do), add the slightly cooled roasted heirloom tomatoes, the rest of the olive oil, ½ tblsp salt, ½ tsp black pepper, 5 garlic cloves, and 3 tblsp chopped basil and the juices from the baking sheet.
Puree everything together and season with additional salt and pepper to taste. This will be an amazingly fresh marinara sauce, that you can use for pizzas, eggplant or chicken parmesan dishes, or as the base for any pasta dish with a red sauce.
I like to store the roasted heirloom tomato marinara sauce in different size containers in the freezer, because I can defrost as much as I need whether I’m cooking for myself, Jonathan and I, or a bunch of people. Definitely label them with the date and what’s inside and use the older batches first.